In January 2008, someone uploaded to WikiLeaks a cache of documents, including hundreds of pages of internal correspondence of a major Swiss bank, Julius Baer. On closer inspection, the cache appeared to show that large amounts of money – sums ranging from $5m to $100m per person – were being, er, shielded in the Cayman Islands from tax authorities in various jurisdictions.
It was all, of course, perfectly legal: wealthy people put capital into trusts based in the Cayman Islands. This allows them lawfully to avoid paying tax on profits from investments, because legally those profits belong to the trust which, as a Cayman “resident”, itself pays no tax. But the trustees can distribute money to the trust’s beneficiaries, who may be residents of the UK and indeed, for all I know, pillars of society or even members of the Tory party.
Legal it may be, but mostly these folks don’t like knowledge of their ingenious wheezes to enter the public domain. It’s so vulgar, don’t you know. And the banks that handle their money like it even less. So Julius Baer went apeshit about the leaks. Its lawyers persuaded a judge in California to shut down wikileaks.org and that, it thought, was that.
You can guess what happened. In no time at all, mirrors of the WikiLeaks site popped up everywhere. The First Amendment crowd in the US started taking an interest. Suddenly, the whole world knew about Julius Baer’s wealth-management services. The California judge had second thoughts, wikileaks.org was restored and CBS News reported the decision under the headline “Free speech has a number: 18.104.22.168” – the IP address of the WikiLeaks site. And a major Swiss bank retired to lick its wounds.
What’s instructive about the Julius Baer case is how clueless the bank and its agents were about the net. They looked like blind men poking a tiger with a stick. It was amusing at the time, but it was too good to last. It was inevitable that the corporate world would wise up and in the past few weeks we’ve begun to see some of the results of that re-education process. And it ain’t pretty.
What’s driving things now is the conjecture that the next big WikiLeaks exposé concerns Bank of America. And deep in the lush undergrowth of corporate America, security, consulting and PR companies have perceived lucrative business opportunities in helping putative WikiLeaks targets get their retaliation in first.
We got a glimpse of this twilight world when the activist group Anonymous hacked into the servers of an internet security firm, HBGary Federal, and posted on the internet a huge cache of internal emails. Some of these messages discuss how the firm, in conjunction with two other companies, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies, might pitch for work from the law firm that represents Bank of America and other prominent outfits.
Among the ideas discussed is a focus on WikiLeaks supporters in the media such as Glenn Greenwald of salon.com. “I think we need to highlight people like Glenn Greenwald,” writes Aaron Barr of HBGary in an email dated 3 December 2010 and reproduced on salon.com. “Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH transition [in which WikiLeaks moved to another hosting service after being dropped by Amazon] and helped WikiLeaks provide information during the transition. It is this level of support we need to attack. These are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals. Without the support of people like Glenn, WikiLeaks would fold.”
One of the most interesting documents unearthed by the Anonymous attack is a PowerPoint presentation outlining the proposed pitch and the competencies of the three companies involved. Among the “Potential Proactive Tactics” is “Cyber attacks against the infrastructure to get data on document transmitters… Since the servers are now in Sweden and France putting a team together to get access is more straightforward.”
Since the story broke, Palantir has apologised to Mr Greenwald and severed its contacts with HBGary. Shortly afterwards Berico did the same. HBGary issued a terse, non-committal statement when withdrawing from a trade show. The company did not respond to phone and email queries about the authenticity of Mr Barr’s message of 3 December.
I could go on, but you will get the point. Bank of America and its lawyers are, of course, horrified by all of this and point out that they have had nothing whatever to do with it. Which is just as well, because they may soon have their hands full dealing with other matters.
By John Naughton
Sunday, 20 February 2011